FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Before heading to its first Big Sky Championship since 2007 next week, the NAU volleyball team (23-5, 15-4 Big Sky) will close the regular season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday vs Northern Colorado (20-10, 13-6 Big Sky). With a win NAU would finish the regular season tied for second in the Big Sky, but the Lumberjacks are locked into the third seed for the Big Sky Championship regardless of Saturday's outcome due to tiebreakers.
Fans can get into the match for FREE by presenting their ticket from the NAU-Cal Poly football game.
The team will honor its five graduating seniors prior to Saturday's match. Lauren Campbell, Anna Gott, Kelli Dallmann, and Jen Wilson are members of fifth-year head coach Craig Choate's first recruiting class while fifth-year senior Lexi Sullivan played on Choate's first team. The class has combined for two Big Sky Most Outstanding Freshman honors (Sullivan in 2008, Dallmann in 2009), has the program's all-time digs leader in Gott, and has the program's first Academic All-American in Campbell.
"There's always a soft spot for the first class," said Choate. "They've worked really hard; I told them when they came 'you've got to help us and it's not going to be easy'. They said they could take us to a conference championship, and that takes time. This year they recognized that they were good enough and just had to go after it."
Before Sullivan and Choate's first year in 2008 the NAU volleyball program had recorded six consecutive losing seasons and hadn't had a winning conference record since 2001. The class and the program showed steady improvement, increasing from eight to 10 to 15 season wins over the last three years, including a record 12-0 start to the 2011 season.
After a disappointing finish to their season last year the Lumberjack senior class was focused on leaving an indelible mark on the program, and they have done that and more this season. The squad has recorded the second most wins in a season in program history and has clinched a third place Big Sky finish in the regular season, the highest conference finish the team has had since 2001. The squad is also on pace to break the program record for season winning percentage, but its goal's will not be reached short of winning the conference title next week.
All of the members of the senior class have made significant contributions to the growth of the program. Sullivan played her first season in 2008 and earned Big Sky Outstanding Freshman Honors after ranking second in the conference with 4.13 kills per set. She returned from an injury that cost her most of her sophomore season to be a strong attacker for the last three seasons and ranks eighth in program history with 2.90 kills per set and tenth with 1,028 career kills.
Sullivan has been flanked on the outside for most of her career by Wilson and Campbell. Wilson has been among the most consistent performers for the team during her career in averaging nearly two kills per set and making significant contributions with digs and blocks. Campbell has averaged more than two kills and one block per set in her career and has appeared in more than 70 matches. Last year she became the first All-American in program history when she was selected to the Capital One Academic All-America third team.
"I just want to win and go out with a bang," said Wilson. "The four years have flown by and I still feel like a freshman. Most people's senior nights they're crying because they're officially done but we will still be going and that is really special."
Dallmann followed Sullivan in earning the Most Outstanding Freshman award in 2009 as one of only four players in the NCAA to average two kills, three assists, and two digs per set and followed with an All-Big Sky second team selection in 2010. After serving as NAU's setter for the majority of her first three seasons, as she ranks sixth in program history in career assists, Dallmann moved to outside hitter this season and is second on the team with 3.09 kills per set. She has contributed in every facet of the game over her four years and is fourth in program history with 46 career double-doubles.
"It's great to see the program grow and I'm proud of how we stuck together even though we had our ups and downs," said Dallmann. "We're going out on top."
Gott has been the defensive backbone of the class and team through her career as she has started every match of her career at libero while also serving as the team's captain. After this year she will have recorded four of the six highest single season dig averages in program history after she shattered the program's career digs record earlier this season. She enters Saturday's match third in Big Sky history with 1,843 career digs and will go down as not only the best defensive player in NAU history but one of the best in the history of the Big Sky conference.
"There's a lot of emotion so it's bitter sweet - excited, sad, happy" said Gott. "We just want to end with a win at home and take that into Big Sky's."
Coaches always have to face the inevitable sadness of losing a group of players at the end of each season, but for Choate this class has special meaning. When he was hired by NAU he said it would take four years for the team to become championship caliber, and that's exactly what has happened thanks to the accomplishments of the first group he brought to Flagstaff.
"They've done some wonderful things and all of them have played extensively through their careers," added Choate. "They're just a fun group to be around. I'm really happy that the seniors got to experience this year and that they're going to go to the tournament. Win, lose, or draw they got there and nothing can change that."
But for this great senior class, their work will not be done on Saturday.
"It's kind of different because we know it's not the end," said Campbell. "We still have Big Sky to win."